Specter's Toomey Primary Race Is Tough Because of Limbaugh--as Steele Fiddles

Toomey might get help from Steele, but he already has from Limbaugh.

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

While the de jure leader of the GOP is contemplating sponsoring primaries against (or not supporting primary races of) Republicans like Arlen Specter who have defied conservative orthodoxy on things like the stimulus package, the party's de facto leader may already have inadvertently stacked the primary deck against the senior Pennsylvania senator.

Specter is facing a primary challenge from Pat Toomey, the conservative former House member who narrowly failed to dislodge Specter six years ago. But the ground has shifted under Specter over those six years: The profile of Republican primary voters has grown distinctly more conservative. As my old employer The Hill reports (in an article that speculates without apparent evidence that Specter might now switch parties):

[Pennsylvania political scientist Terry] Madonna estimated that between 150,000 to 200,000 centrist Republicans switched registration to the Democratic Party in the 2008 election cycle, leaving the remaining GOP electorate more conservative. The Pennsylvania Department of State reported more than 130,000 switches from the GOP to the Democratic Party before the 2008 primary contest between President Obama and former Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

Part of the reason so many Republicans switched registration was that they wanted to take part in an exciting Democratic primary (especially when there was no Republican primary to speak of, as John McCain had wrapped up the nomination).

But there was more going on. Remember " Operation Chaos"? That was de facto GOP leader Rush Limbaugh's scheme to get Republicans to switch parties and vote for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, dragging out the process and, presumably, sowing chaos among his enemies. Pennsylvania was a "chaos" state.

As Hot Air's Ed Morrissey observes:

Specter can blame Operation Chaos for that development. In 2008, over 150,000 Pennsylvania Republicans switched to the Democratic primary to vote for Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama. Most of those were centrists and moderates, and most of them haven't switched back. If they stay out, they won't be able to participate in the closed Pennsylvania primaries in 2010. Specter's close shave in 2004 would almost certainly transform into a lopsided defeat under those circumstances, especially with his vote on Porkulus.

The irony for the Republicans here is that Specter is a much tougher general-election candidate. As my colleague Michael Barone points out:

[ Commentary writer] Rubin notes the argument made by Specter backers that he is the only Republican who can hold the seat. I find that argument stronger than she does, and stronger than it was in 2004. That year George W. Bush lost Pennsylvania by only 51 percent-48percent; if Toomey, who had been elected three times in a congressional district which Bush lost that year by 726 votes, been the Republican nominee, I think he would have had a decent chance to win the district. But look at the 2008 Pennsylvania numbers. John McCain lost Pennsylvania 54 percent-44 percent. The exit poll showed party identification in the state as 44 percent Democratic and only 37 percent Republican. So I think it's going to be hard for a Republican who won the nomination by campaigning as a conservative to win, unless opinion and party identification shifts significantly. Which could happen, but hasn't happened yet.

But the truth of the current GOP—and especially that wing in which Toomey resides—is that it would rather lose with ideological purity than win with a big tent.